The Day After Tomorrow

Science Behind the Fiction: The scariest and most realistic climate change movies

Contributed by
Nov 28, 2018

Last week, the United States government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment. This new report summarizes and outlines the latest in climate science, including the current and potential future impact of ongoing climate change.

It seems as though we’ve been living beneath the shadow of climate change, once called global warming, for most of our lives. Yet, despite increased visibility and awareness, the situation is only getting worse. The climate change train is moving down the tracks faster than we can apply the brakes (or, at least, faster than we’re willing to), and it doesn’t help that leaders within our own government won't even admit it's a problem.

While, according to a consensus of the best science available, climate change is the furthest thing from fiction, that hasn’t stopped it from creeping into our stories. Sometimes, these depictions are absurd, other times they're terrifyingly possible. 

On a scale of Sharknado to An Inconvenient Truth, let’s look at some of the best and worst sci-fi tales and how they relate to the real-world climate crisis.

RISING SEA LEVELS (Waterworld)

While Waterworld debuted to middling reviews and failed to earn back its massive budget (it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time) at the box office, it’s become something of a memorable classic and early frontrunner in climate fiction.

It tells the tale of a world in which climate change has reached its ultimate conclusion. With the ice caps completely melted, water has consumed the surface of the Earth and pushed humanity onto floating communities fighting just to keep living.

What follows is an action-packed struggle to survive on a global ocean, complete with pirates, mutated humans, and priceless jars of dirt.

It was such a phenomenon it spawned video games, a tie-in novel, comic books, and theme park attractions. The only area it couldn’t touch was reality.

While climate change, if left unchecked, may ultimately result in the total melting of polar ice caps, it wouldn’t result in one huge global ocean, as depicted in the film.

Don’t be mistaken, there is a ridiculous amount of ice on this planet. If you were to press it all together into a cube, it would stretch more than 34 miles into the sky. If you laid it all out a thousand meters high, it would cover North America. We’ve got ice for days, but...

A certain percentage of the world’s ice is already in the oceans, floating on the surface and it, on average, is the first ice to melt. Just like in a glass of water, if (when) that ice melts, the sea level won’t rise much at all because it’s already displacing water in its current state.

That isn’t to say, however, that there is no impact. Oceanic ecosystems rely on stable conditions and the addition of fresh water, in the form of melted sea ice, will mess with the salinity of the world’s oceans, but that’s not all.

The melting of polar ice impacts not just the salinity but the density of oceanic water, which impacts currents and the distribution of nutrients to the world’s oceans.

The whole situation gets even worse when land-based ice enters the picture. More than 95% of the Earth’s ice is on land, and when that melts and ultimately enters the world’s oceans, we’ll be in real trouble.

Ice is hugely reflective and, as it melts, less of the Sun’s rays are bounced back into space. This creates a sort of feedback loop which means that as the ice melts, the world gets warmer causing even more ice to melt, and so on.

Eventually, all of the world’s ice will melt and drift into the seas.

It wouldn't create a global ocean, but it would have a drastic impact. If all of the frozen water on Earth were converted into a liquid state it would result in a 216-foot rise in sea levels. 

The results would be staggering. Coastal cities would be swallowed and inland areas would be drastically changed. This would require a mass migration of human populations heretofore unseen. The human population would be pushed closer together, the percentage of useable land reduced, and the shipping lanes for sharing resources entirely rerouted.

So, while we wouldn’t end up living on floating barges fighting over containers of dry earth and violently killing one another over mysterious tattoos and aberrant mutations, it would drastically alter the equilibrium we’ve enjoyed for so long.

EXTREME WEATHER PATTERNS (The Day After Tomorrow, Geostorm)

Extreme weather is an obvious element for action-packed stories. While rising sea levels and increasing temperatures happen over long durations and are difficult to see in day-to-day life, violent storms are immediate.

That is, perhaps, why movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm are appealing. A drastic change in climate or weather patterns is something tangible, something that can be seen, felt, and measured in the here and now.

The truth is that Hollywood has taken some serious liberties and the likelihood of such incredible weather events as are portrayed on the silver screen are minimal. But they succeed in showcasing our fears, in crystallizing what is, in actuality, a slow-burn into something tangible.

The recent climate assessment outlines an increase in Atlantic hurricane activity over recent decades which includes a bump in intensity, frequency, and duration. In short, violent storms happen more often, for longer, and are more devastating than any time in recorded history.

It wasn’t too long ago that Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, but violent storms are so frequent now that most of us don’t even remember their names. This might have the effect of making them seem less serious when in fact it means they’re worse.

This is only one type of major weather system which is expected to continue worsening over the coming years. Floods and tornadoes may also be impacted by climate change, increasing not only in frequency but in intensity.

While sci-fi tales on the big and small screen take liberties in search of a thrilling narrative, they are rooted in a reality that is very real and on the horizon.

It’s unlikely that we’ll find ourselves at the mercy of a storm that will freeze people on the spot, as seen in The Day After Tomorrow, we’re not so lucky as to have a threat so immediate and recognizable.

Instead, we’re faced with a pervasive and menacing degradation of the world we depend on, a slow-rotting environmental cancer of our own making.

DROUGHTS AND HEAT WAVES (Mad Max, Interstellar)

The Mad Max franchise takes place in a world ravaged by climate and societal collapse. Set in a not-too-distant future, the world has heated to a point of unsustainability and water is in short supply. While the horrid, car-worshiping, civilization might be an invention of George Miller, the setting is all too possible.

According to the recent climate assessment, extreme hot weather is becoming more common. The amount of time between the first and last frosts of the year is shortening and the number of days with record high temperatures is increasing. It’s suggested that locations like Phoenix, Arizona might experience almost half the year with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

All of this will result in increasingly dry sediments, more frequent and devastating wildfires, and tainted water supplies as the ash from fires spread.

When coupled with the impact to human populations, infrastructure, and shipping lanes it isn’t unlikely that a shortage of natural and manufactured resources might ultimately result in stranded populations struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.

Likewise, the impact of severe drought over vast stretches of land threaten a repeat of the dust bowl of the 1930s.

As inland freshwater becomes more scarce and droughts spread, crops will become more difficult to cultivate. As a result, food production will drop and providing basic sustenance for the ever-increasing human population may become unsustainable.

While bailing out through a black hole to another planet in some distant locale, as showcased in 2014’s Interstellar, is beyond our current technological reach, it is possible that drastic measures would need to be undertaken in order to ensure the continuance of ordinary human life. Though, it would be better that we fix the problem before it gets to that point.

WRITING A NEW FUTURE

Climate change is a global problem we seem collectively unwilling to face head-on, to our own detriment.

While a majority of people in the United States believe climate change is happening, and that human activities are the driving force, a large portion also believe it won’t impact them in their lifetimes. There’s a sort of national narrative happening that says, ‘yes, this is a problem, but it isn’t my problem.’ And that’s a story that, if allowed to continue to its final act, won’t end well for us.

And maybe the way we talk about it is part of the problem. In recent years, the problem of climate change has metamorphosed from something that could be handled (as was the case during the age of FernGully and Captain Planet) to something we’ll have to endure.

If we have any hope of coming out of this crisis alive, we need not only to change the way we live, but also to flip the script. Art often imitates life but the inverse is also true. We find inspiration in the stories we tell one another. Maybe we could do with a movie or two which outlines not just the problem, but some possible solutions. Our stories have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. It might serve us to tell a few that end well.


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